Number five, and second to last in our Valentine’s Day series of literary love letters, is one of the many exchanged between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. This letter was written by Vita in Milan and posted in Trieste, at a time when the two were apart.
Virginia Woolf was already a leading figure of modernism when she met fellow writer Vita Sackville-West in 1922. Woolf came from a family with strong ties to the English artistic and intellectual world. Her mother, Julia Jackson, had served as a model for several late 19th century artists, most notably photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones. In 1912, she had married the writer Leonard Woolf, a man poorer than herself and, despite her affairs and mental health issues, the marriage is considered to have been a happy one.
Vita Sackville-West was by far Virginia Woolf’s most famous affair. Born in an aristocratic family, Vita married the writer and politician Harold George Nicolson. The pair, both bisexual, had an open marriage and gender-bending Vita largely preferred the company of women. This heart-breaking, passionate letter perfectly expresses the depth and intensity of her attachment to Virginia Woolf:
“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this –But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.
However I won’t bore you with any more.
We have re-started, and the train is shaky again. I shall have to write at the stations – which are fortunately many across the Lombard plain.
Venice. The stations were many, but I didn’t bargain for the Orient Express not stopping at them. And here we are at Venice for ten minutes only, — a wretched time in which to try and write. No time to buy an Italian stamp even, so this will have to go from Trieste.
The waterfalls in Switzerland were frozen into solid iridescent curtains of ice, hanging over the rock; so lovely. And Italy all blanketed in snow.
We’re going to start again. I shall have to wait till Trieste tomorrow morning. Please forgive me for writing such a miserable letter.
Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel “Orlando,” which deals largely with gender identity, is inspired by and dedicated to Vita Sackville-West and borrows a lot from the latter’s family history. Vita’s son Nigel Nicolson later referred to the book as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”
In spite of her deep feelings for Woolf, Vita had several other lesbian lovers, some of them younger than herself, and Virginia was often jealous of the other women, feeling too old and no longer wanted. Either way, the two remained close until Virginia Woolf’s suicide in March 1941. Vita Sackville-West survived her by over 20 years and died in 1962.
Anca Rotar is a Romanian-born writer, over-thinker and caffeine addict. She is the author of two books, Hidden Animals and Before It Sets You Free, both available from Amazon.com. Among her interests, which she finds it hard to shut up about, she counts fashion, yoga, city breaks and deadpan sarcasm. She is also currently studying Japanese, so wish her luck. You can sample bits of Anca’s creative writing here.